What happens once you call 911 for a traffic incident?

AdobeStock_422912910You’re on the interstate, just enjoying the Iowa scenery when - all of a sudden - someone quickly merges from a ramp and clips the back of your vehicle. Your car spins and hits the cable barrier. Luckily you didn’t hit anyone else and you’re OK but pretty shaken. You grab your cell phone and call 911. What happens next?

“Every 911 call comes into one of Iowa’s 113 ‘public safety answering points,” said Ted Shipley of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Operations Division. “Typically, that would be a communication center for the Iowa State Patrol, county sheriff’s office, or other law enforcement. The answering point dispatches resources within their area of responsibility such as emergency medical services, fire, police, or the traffic management center.”

What happens when you call 911?

For the incident we’ve described, first on the scene would likely be either staff from the county sheriff’s office or the Iowa State Patrol. Additional responders such as fire crews and an ambulance would likely soon follow. If there is damage to the road or a need to clean up material spilled in the crash, Iowa Department of Transportation maintenance staff might be called. If the incident blocks all or part of the roadway, one of the Iowa DOT’s Highway Helper vehicles might also be called to assist with managing and protecting the queue of vehicles that line up behind the crash. That’s a lot of emergency vehicles all converging in one place. So, in this scenario, who’s in charge and how do all these entities communicate, collaborate, and coordinate to get the best outcome for the people who need them?

A process called “Incident Command” goes into effect to help the parties best coordinate their response. Jim Armstrong from the Iowa DOT’s Operations Division said, “Incident command isn’t specific to highway crashes. It’s used in many different emergency or military scenarios to coordinate a number of different groups when a common goal is necessary. For the incident we’ve described, the first responder on the scene would assume command of that scene. This means that responder would be coordinating with all other needed responders to get all elements of the scene covered. Typically, in a crash where there are injuries, possible damage to the road or other structures, there’s no way a single responder can handle all that needs to be done. We all rely on each other’s expertise to make sure the situation is cleared as safely and quickly as possible.”

In this structure, the incident commander’s duties are:

  1. Life safety – making sure all who are injured are attended to
  2. Report back to the 911 call center to arrange for all other services
  3. Unify command with other responders – get everyone on the same page related to the response activities

Getting the word out to the public of any traffic incidents that could impact other travelers is the job of the Iowa DOT’s Traffic Management Center in Ankeny. Shipley said, “The TMC is notified of an incident in a number of ways. They might get a call directly from law enforcement on the scene, the 911 communication center, or they may pick up the crash on one of the hundreds of cameras on our highways.”

Iowa Traffic Management Center
The Iowa DOT’s Traffic Management Center monitors hundreds of traffic cameras 24/7/365.

If the incident causes the closure of interstate, the Iowa DOT has developed diversion routes (also known as traffic incident management plans). Shipley said, “These routes were developed to get all entities that might respond to an incident on the same page related to rerouting traffic. The plans include the information to be placed on the dynamic message signs and a number of other tactical elements so responders don’t have to develop a strategy in the midst of an incident. The plan is already developed, it just needs to be implemented.”

TIM Plan

“Traffic incident management plans for the interstate system have been in the works for a few years and we’re continuing to include other segments of major highways, updating the existing plans,” said Armstrong.

Field guideAnother tool responders use is the Traffic Management Field Guide. This guide was developed as a resource for first responders, especially those in more rural areas who may not be called to respond often to highway crashes.

Armstrong notes that the plans and field guide were not simply products from the Iowa DOT. “We have a Statewide Traffic Incident Management steering committee that includes members from law enforcement, fire service, towing companies, and others who have an interest in incident management. Their knowledge together was gathered together to develop plans which has been vital to their success.”

Iowa’s 12 “multi-disciplinary safety teams” or MDSTs are also a great place to vet plans and facilitate coordination between groups. These groups have regional representatives from all areas of highway safety and meet regularly to discuss safety concerns in a specific parts of the state. Theresa Litteral from the Institute for Transportation at Iowa State University coordinates the MDST program and has developed a website for traffic safety professionals related to MDSTs and traffic incident management.

Litteral said, “By coordinating communication and collaborating with other stakeholders, we all gain a broader perspective from professionals outside of our own area of expertise. This interagency collaboration and cooperation ultimately lead to solutions that may not have been considered otherwise.”

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